Pushing an Allegory Too Far

16 Oct

A couple of posts popped up recently in my Facebook feed, asking the same question. Is Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame white? (See here and here.)

The writer of the first article notes, correctly, that ‘white’ is the default for characters in western novels. Hermione is never given a skin colour in the books, unlike clearly non-white characters, and ‘Hermione Granger’ is very much an upper middle class British name. Indeed, given what little we know about her parents (both professional dentists), they are almost certainly white upper middle class themselves. They are, in some ways, the kind of people Vernon and Petunia Dursley would like to be. We know very little else about the Grangers – they only appear in the books once – but what we hear from Hermione only confirms my first impression. Hermione’s own personality, for example, suggests she was given a great deal of autonomy from a very early age (not entirely a wise decision); there may even be a case to be made that she, like Ron and Harry, was neglected by her caretakers.

From this alone, we can be reasonably certain that Hermione is indeed white. But there is another aspect that needs to be exploded.

(Pic Source)

The Wizarding World is clearly neither racist nor sexist, at least in the conventional sense. We see at least one high-ranking black man in the series and the Deputy Headmistress of Hogwarts is very definitely a women. No one shouts racial slurs at any of the non-white characters in the series. This actually makes a great deal of sense; magic, which binds their world together, clearly doesn’t discriminate between sex or race.

But it does have prejudices of its own. Specifically, prejudices against muggle-borns (magical children born of non-magical parents, like Hermione), squibs (muggles born of mages), werewolves and some other magical children and – finally, muggles (non-magical people). Having a white character like Hermione exposed to what is effectively racism is a shocker. If Hermione had been portrayed as black, from the start, it would have made the message weaker. Coming to think of it, if the prejudices had been brought into the open in book one, before Hermione became Ron and Harry’s friend, they might even have wound up agreeing with Draco. Hermione needed to be established in our minds as one of the good guys before she was faced with open racism.

There is, however, a deeper issue. Racism against black people purely for being black, for example, is never justified. Ask the average person if they should discriminate, purely on the grounds of skin colour, and they will probably say no. However, one should ask if the prejudices of the Wizarding World are wholly unjustified. Historically, muggles burnt witches and wizards. Refusing to allow muggle-borns to attend Hogwarts (which caused the schism between the four founders) might have been a reasonable attitude at the time – muggle-borns might just lead their parents to the school and ensure its destruction. Even in the time of the books, a thousand years after Hogwarts was founded, many muggles who learn of the magical world react badly (not always without good reason). Petunia and Tobias Snape both loathed the idea of having magical relatives, although Petunia may well have a reasonable excuse.

Werewolves, squibs (and Goblins, perhaps) represent another issue. They cannot help being what they are – that’s true – but their conditions carry implications that have to be addressed.

There are only two werewolves who play a major role in the books. One of them is pretty obviously a Child Predator, biting young children to turn them into werewolves themselves; the other, Remus Lupin, although a reasonably decent teacher, is staggeringly careless. Not only does he fail to take the potion that will allow him to control his condition, he failed to share vital information when a (supposed) mass murderer with a major grudge against Harry was on the loose. It is quite possible that Dumbledore summarily fired Lupin at the end of Book III (as he should have done) and blaming it on Snape, which Lupin does, doesn’t change the fact that Lupin was lucky to escape a charge of reckless endangerment.

Indeed, the prejudice against squibs may be the only truly irrational prejudice in the Wizarding World. Squibs cannot be blamed for their condition, nor do they represent a real or imaginary threat. Prejudices against squibs, alas, may be a representation of the horror many of us feel when confronted with the intensely disabled, or the mentally challenged. Worse, perhaps, squibs are ill-prepared to leave the Wizarding World and yet unable to live comfortably within it.

To portray Hermione as black would undermine any rational analysis of magical prejudices. It is easy to scream ‘racism’ when someone dislikes a black character or feels they’re not suited for a particular role.

But there is also a more personal issue. Hermione is a complex character in many ways – and yet that complexity seems to have slipped past most observers. She certainly is not the perfect good girl. Her early scenes show her flaws very clearly. She’s pushy when she meets Harry for the first time, telling him she’s read all about him; she’s putting herself forward to help Neville even though it isn’t clear Neville wants to be helped; she shows off her skills from the start, to the point of rubbing her success in Ron’s face. And she might well have lied too – using magic at home is forbidden, yet she was prepared to claim the spells she tried worked. Frankly, Hermione is one step away from becoming a bully.

Hermione doesn’t lose any of her flaws even after she befriends Harry and Ron, ending her self-inflicted isolation from her peers. She is often willing – far too willing – to take matters into her own hands. When Harry is sent the latest model of broomstick by an unknown person, Hermione reports it to the teachers, which results in the broom being confiscated for examination. From an adult point of view, Hermione did the right thing, but it didn’t seem to occur to her that Harry and Ron would feel otherwise. Later, in fifth year, Hermione puts a jinx to catch anyone who tries to betray the DA to Umbridge, a jinx that scars its victim for life. (It also ensures that any betrayal will immediately become public, rather than allowing her to deal with the betrayer quietly.) And while she is perfectly capable of rattling off romantic advice to Harry and Ginny, she is far less capable of applying it for herself. It’s clear from very early on that she’s interested in Ron, but she sends him some very mixed messages.

And then she effectively kidnaps and imprisons an adult witch and literally commits mind-rape when she wipes the memories of herself from her parents minds. By the end of the series, it’s hard not to escape the feeling that Hermione, like so many other characters in the books, is nothing more than a Designated Hero. It is a cause of some minor frustration that hardly anyone calls Hermione out on her actions, let alone holds her to account.

The core problem, I think, is that Hermione is an immigrant into a society that is so much like our own, on the surface, that we (and she) miss the differences. Throughout the books, we are confronted with evidence that the Wizarding World operates on very different principles to the mundane world, yet Hermione seems to miss them. It is absurd, for example, for a headmaster in our world to be, at the same time, Speaker of the House of Commons, but Dumbledore possesses both titles and a whole host of others. Hermione’s private crusade on behalf of House Elves seems to miss the fact that House Elves are not human, that they want to be appreciated rather than treated with condescending benevolence. Nor does it seem to occur to her that the interconnections between the different families would create problems; Umbridge has no difficulty whatsoever in finding someone who can be pressured to betray Dumbledore’s Army, simply because her mother worked in the ministry. This is particularly unforgivable on Hermione’s part because she knows, by this time, that Percy Weasley has publicly separated himself from his family, at least in part to prevent them from being used against them or vice versa.

Hermione is not, I think, particularly clever. She is capable of projecting a facade of cleverness – she admits it herself in book one – but she lacks the spark of genius showed by several other characters, most notably the young Snape. She has learned how to absorb and use knowledge, yet she never really adapts it for herself. The ‘half-blood prince’ modified potions recipes. Hermione objects heatedly to the mere idea of deviating from the script and is outraged when Harry, following the altered recipe, gets better results than her. And she is not particularly mature either. She tries to project an attitude adults will find acceptable, but she finds it far harder to get respect from her peers.

In the age of Social Justice Warriors, of people who whine and moan when a female character admits that she regrets being sterilised, having those flaws in a black character would probably be used to batter the author around the head, several times. Writers are trapped between the need to portray non-white characters positively – and, in doing so, create Mary Sues – and deliberately renouncing such needs, by creating non-white characters who are villains. It is a great deal harder to create a well-rounded character, a person who may be seen as good or bad, when one aspect comes to dominate the rest.

Hermione Granger is white because she has to be white. It’s the only way her role in her new world can be explored.

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9 Responses to “Pushing an Allegory Too Far”

  1. ioriangel October 16, 2015 at 7:04 pm #

    The world is a complex place, we have unwritten rules for everything. But I don’t agree we have some good non-white characters in Novels and sometimes they indeed are boyscouts or innocents but we have some balanced ine too ! But yeahwhat I can agree with your analysis is people like to feel good about themselves and denounce what they perceive as racism. Does the color of skin change what someone can be underneath it ? We are all the same; white, black, indian, asian… we are all human.

  2. Duncan Cairncross October 16, 2015 at 10:48 pm #

    Excellent analysis
    Have you read the “methods of Rationality”?

    https://www.fanfiction.net/s/5782108/74/Harry_Potter_and_the_Methods_of_Rationality

  3. roger October 17, 2015 at 12:23 am #

    1. Witches can not be burned as they have a spell which prevents fire from hurting them. Forget which book gives an example of witch letting herself get caught over 300 times. Since you missed that, I think you only scanned the books,and trying to push your bullshit using a popular character as click bait.

    • chrishanger October 17, 2015 at 10:11 am #

      Book III – Prisoner.

      Which is interesting, because anyway you look at the idea, it’s pretty stupid. Harry is unable to defend himself from his aunt, uncle and cousin, even though he shows bursts of accidental magic. There wouldn’t be anything stopping them from killing him, poisoning him or simply starving him to death – and they know about magic. A family in the middle ages, convinced their child was possessed by the devil, might even think killing the child was the only way to save their soul.

      Rereading the section, it sounds like a combination of triumphalism and general contempt for muggles. Yet a logical reading of the series suggests, very strongly, that muggles are not an insignificant threat. Otherwise, why would the wizards bother to hide?

      None of this, of course, has much to do with the article itself.

      My Site: http://www.chrishanger.net/
      My Blog: https://chrishanger.wordpress.com/
      My Facebook Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/ChristopherGNuttall

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard October 17, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

        Off topic for your article, but don’t get me started on the stupidity of leaving Harry with his aunt & uncle. [Sad Smile]

      • Korwin October 19, 2015 at 12:23 pm #

        logical reading… Harry Potter…?
        There are so many logical holes in that serie.
        Just an example: time travel…

  4. Todor October 21, 2015 at 8:32 am #

    The argument about Hermione potentially being black seems a US thing to me. The Harry Potter story, however, happens in England, where the main ethnic tension isn’t black-while. So while Chris’s arguments that she should be from the ethnic majority there (namely white) still apply, if we’re talking about racism, we shouldn’t really oppose while and black; but rather English and immigrant (for the most prevalent racist tendencies in England have always been anti-immigration).

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